Fighting Poverty with Passion
To become a VISTA Leader, there is a prerequisite that one must have served at least a one year previous term as a VISTA. Some have the opportunity to serve in this capacity with the same organization they performed duties for as a VISTA their first year, while others have the opportunity to expand their knowledge base and serve with a new set of professionals. I was in a group with the latter. I have now been living in New Orleans for three months! My first year of service was done with Kansas Campus Compact and HandsOn K-State. I was in a rural community, with only about 52,000 residents and 22,000 of those being students at the large state school located in that town. Within a 50 mile radius, there were three other VISTA members. There were other AmeriCorps members, but they were mostly RSVP volunteers. Contrast this with a population of nearly 384,000 in New Orleans and 1,250,000 in the metropolitan area, and you begin to understand how different the experience can be for AmeriCorps members from one service term to another. There are about 60 VISTA members in New Orleans city limits alone! It’s definitely a privilege to be serving with the Tulane project, which holds a weekly meeting for its 16 members. Although I am technically serving with the TNVNet project, with members in Minnesota and Virginia, I have the opportunity to network and am around people who have an excitement for service, and also understand what it is like to live on a limited budget right here in New Orleans.
So, you are all probably wondering…what does a person who is living below the poverty line do for fun? I think that answer is very different depending upon the geographical region that VISTA is placed. Living in New Orleans and serving as a VISTA volunteer is a very different experience than the one I held previously in Kansas. Living in a rural area meant that I would find nature areas and go hiking, take pictures, etc. However, there were limited thrift stores, and “festivals” were limited to the County fair held in the summer, with a few parades for major holidays. The town I lived in did a really great job of using funds to have local and national music artists come, but, again, those were mostly summer activities. So, needless to say, I became a movie junky over that year…$1 rentals and free checkouts of old favorites from the library were my vice. Now in New Orleans, I live right across from the public library. I have already read a few page-turners, had the chance to go to one of the many festivals held in the city, and a game night with other VISTA members was a blast. The thrift store selection has more than tripled, and I most definitely enjoy a local place of interest that has a live DJ and serves free dinner on Fridays! I have learned, especially in a second year of VISTA, how to keep myself entertained without spending money.
Although life has not changed much from attending school to becoming a VISTA, in terms of availability of monetary funds, I believe that my enjoyment of something as simple as reading a book is heightened, whereas when I was attending school I needed to find an escape from reading. My new urban surroundings, although I have yet to take full advantage of them, are a backdrop for a better understanding of poverty in America and what we can systemically do to make for the betterment of our society and those living in it. I am sure the coming months will bring more enlightenment and I look forward to sharing it with “ya’ll!”
-Sara Weber, TNVNet VISTA Leader, Tulane University Center for Public Service